BERLIN — There’s a cold civil war in Turkey. An event like the mining catastrophe and its 301 victims could have united the deeply split country, emotionally. But not even the grief of so many Turks could bring supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together.

Turkey is split into at least three camps. The Kurds in the southeast are stronger and more confident than ever. Secular, Western-oriented Turks who mainly live in the large cities and along the coasts have a profound dislike of Erdogan. He represents the 40 or so percent of the Turkish population that is bound by conservative Islamic values. They are uncompromising in their support for the prime minister, and have made it possible for the freely-elected head of government of an ostensible democracy to believe he is immune to criticism.

Can this be reconciled with the economic anxiety of the newly emerged middle class? There can be no doubt that this new class exists in Turkey, and that it owes its existence to the neo-liberal economic policies of the AKP government.

Until now Erdogan understood how to fulfill his clientele’s expectations, mainly by using ambitious projects to create a picture of Turkey as a fast-developing nation. Under his government, the Turkish economy has indeed achieved high rates of economic growth.

Before Erdogan, Turkey had only a narrow, secular-oriented middle class. Now there’s also a Muslim middle class of well-educated folks who earn good livings — and fervidly support Erdogan.

But the autocratic behavior of the prime minister after the mine accident could wind up being a turning point, where for the first time a wedge is driven between him and those who voted for him. 

Betrayal in the ranks

If, instead, he rides this crisis out again, it is not because his supporters are blind. Some have sworn loyalty to him because they perceive him to be a Muslim leader who has taken on the whole world.

Such fights are familiar from the propaganda repertoire of totalitarian regimes, directed against "traitors" and "conspirators" in one’s own ranks, and serve as cover-ups for misconduct and wrongdoing by the leadership. Erdogan has powerful media at his disposal, and makes targeted use of disinformation. What is surprising is that he has so far come through all this rather well, not only in Turkey but also abroad.

When Erdogan came to power 12 years ago he was a bearer of hope. Religious, traditionally raised, from a simple background, he quickly became a role model for the impoverished masses. But he also held promise for the Turkish elite: a basic reform that would make the country fit to become part of Europe.

He came across as a devout, practicing Muslim who was also a convinced European. At a time when the image of Muslims was severely damaged by Islamic terrorists, Erdogan seemed — also to many in the West — to be something of a savior.

But there’s nothing left now of the democratic Erdogan. He is no longer a reformer, leading Turkey to Europe. He is merely a conqueror who has appropriated the oppressive means that the Turkish state used to employ against its opponents.

Under authoritarian Kemalist secular ideology of modern Turkey's founders, the promise was enlightened modernization, where backward believers in Islam were the main enemy. Now after the advent of Erdogan we know that it was an illusion to believe that a democratic movement could have its inception among those believers.

Twisting Koran's message

Islam in Turkey is very far from being an innovative force. Instead, it makes it possible for a corrupt group of politicians to cement their power. The religion unites but also separates believers for whom emotional shackles exercise stronger power than rational argument.

Muslim-dominated societies have no power of resistance against tyrants. Each individual has a deeply imbedded sense of obedience to those of higher rank which precludes informed public opinion. The secular modernizers of Turkey also based themselves in these authoritarian and hierarchical structures thus blocking the formation of a liberal enlightened society.

If you go to the masses, don’t forget the whip! That was the unspoken motto of Turkey’s modernizers. Anybody wearing a uniform or a suit took precedence over rural folks, or the have-nots who lived in the poor neighborhoods of the big cities. An autocratic mindset set the fundamental tone.

Inside Istanbul's Blue Mosque — Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen

Erdogan’s people wear suits. But the power that the Turkish state has appropriated no longer takes its references from enlightenment but from conservative values, from traditional Islam whose propagated fatalism was always the most powerful ally of repressive rulers.

It is always the same lack of values and orientation that draws many people to Islam — they hope to find in it something to hold on to. Why does Islam — which once founded a highly sophisticated civilization and is possessed of a strong social consciousness — fail so miserably as a reference for political and societal life in modern times?

Modernity left out

One of the reasons is certainly that lived, practiced Islam no longer has anything to do with the sense of justice that informed the Koranic message. But do Christians still live the Sermon on the Mount? No, but the consequences of that are entirely different than they are in the case of Muslims. Christianity long ago merged with the modernity, thanks to the Enlightenment.

Jesus could be absorbed into the humanism that marks the values of the West. Muhammed on the other hand stands alone, and when Muslim societies opened themselves up to modernity he was left out.

Very devout Muslims are proud that the lessons of the Prophet are considered timeless and that the Koran an eternally valid word of God. But today they’re paying a high price for that because their religion is no longer a match for human dignity.

Islam is a corset that can hold a body together but doesn’t provide enough air for the spirit. It doesn’t allow consciences to breathe. That becomes blatantly clear whenever a catastrophe befalls people, when as in Syria a country torn apart by civil war needs to find peace, or the wounds of a mine disaster need to be tended, as now in Turkey.

Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate. Its language makes the tongue bold, and can inflict fresh wounds.

Whoever challenges this system is not only breaking the rules, but endangering the entire belief system. So those in power do not see their opponents as mere opponents guilty of lèse majestéthey see them as godless.

*Senocak, a Turkish-born poet, writer and journalist has been living in Germany since 1970, and is a leading voice on issues of multiculturalism and German-Turkish affairs.